Second language development in a multilingual context

Starting from the general observation that individual L2 learning outcomes are often at odds with educational goals but not necessarily with the learners’ own perceived communicative needs, the objective is to find out whether and how multiple L2 learning in a multilingual learning and living context affects the individuals’ L2 development and shapes their ultimate level of attainment in the L2s.

The target group of this investigation are highly educated adult learners who learn two additional languages (English/German or Danish/English) at university level (BA program at Syddansk Universitet in Sønderborg) in order to become multilingual professionals able to sell their multiple language capacities and multicultural expertise in an internationalized marketplace (so-called elite multilingualism). Their L2 attainment is measured at different stages of the learning process on the phonetic and discourse-pragmatic levels of the L2s. These two levels have been selected because they can be considered as particular markers of advanced proficiency in that ‘accent’ and ‘pragmatic fluency’ are those areas against which non-native proficiency tends to be judged most frequently and most harshly by (native) speakers and tend to be the sources of stereotyping and cross-cultural misunderstanding. At the same time pronunciation and pragmatic appropriateness are seen as indicators of the degree and kind of the learners’ L2 socalization.
The results of the investigation are supposed to feed into the planning and evaluating of educational policy and practice for learner populations, whose members are striving to become multilingual agents in multicultural environments – such as in Sønderjylland.

Motivation for the project

This project addresses a form of L2 learning that is relevant in several ways:

• From a socio-political and socio-economic perspective, this group of L2 learners represents the mobile, multilingual agents characteristic of and demanded by a ‘globalized’ world as evidenced, e.g. in the increase in bi- and trilingual university study programs throughout Denmark and the world.

• From a linguistic perspective, the type of L2 learning this group is involved in combines a number of phenomena that have only recently begun to be focused on in second language acquisition (SLA) research:

– The learning of multiple additional languages, giving rise to both individual and societal multilingualism;
– the complexities of multilingual settings in which communication takes place as a result of migration and internationalization processes, e.g. with respect to the relationship of the languages involved and the proficiency levels of the participants;
– the role of English as an L2 as it presents a special challenge for L2 learners on both psycholinguistic and social levels, because the adoption of English as a quasi lingua franca in many multilingual settings may influence the individuals’ perceived communicative needs, their conception of the comparative usefulness of the L2s at their disposal and eventually their investment in L2 learning;
– and the development of advanced L2 capacities – which are the prerequisite for becoming competent agents in multilingual and cross-cultural communication.


The theoretical and methodological basis of the project is determined by a ‘language use in context’ perspective where L2 learning is conceived of as a context-bound, situated practice and process. The project has a longitudinal format, using an apparent time format and multiple wave sampling. L2 development will be measured by observing three comparable populations from the first, second, and third year of study, respectively. Production data will be sampled at least twice per group in authentic settings related to academic activities (e.g. presentations, in-class group work, exams). Throughout the project time, real-time data will be collected as the first year population moves through the three-year BA-program. The combination of apparent time and real time format allows for comparison between and within the learner populations. The analysis of the language data will be triangulated by an analysis of the individuals personal learning contexts (language biographies, communities of practice, social networks), which will be captured through questionnaires and introspective interviews. Because this approach establishes the learners’ investment and language usage patterns parallel to L2 development it will be possible to see possible trade-offs between linguistic development in the L2 and the learners’ preoccupations in real life.

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